A travel club that became a political force

March 31, 2000

The National Union of Students has always reflected the spirit of the times. Now, two long-term members are putting its 78-year history into print. Harriet Swain reports

A few times a year, men and women who once yelled slogans and staged sit-ins together, meet up for a spot of lunch. All are former elected representatives of the National Union of Students, and these "lunch clubs" have been taking place since the early 1960s. They are one of the few ways in which the union maintains any links with its past.

In an organisation that transforms its leadership every couple of years and its entire membership every three or four years, there is little time for looking back, especially as many of those involved move quickly onwards and upwards to influential positions elsewhere.

The advantage is that the organisation has, more than most, always managed to reflect the spirit of its times.

This is something that has become clear to two NUS staff, who have each been with the union for 15 years and are now compiling a book on its history.

Judith Broadbent, a publications editor for the NUS in London and one of the authors, says: "The NUS may not draw on experience very much. But so many interesting people have been through it."

Along with Mike Day, membership services manager for the University of Strathclyde's Students' Association, Broadbent has recorded the memories of many of these people, including some who played leading roles in the union before the second world war.

1922 NUS founded. Members are mainly ex-servicemen and a key motivation is to achieve greater international understanding to avoid another major war.

1932 UK students become disillusioned with the international efforts of the main European student body, which is showing support for fascist groups, and decide to concentrate on education and travel. They assume responsibility for travel for students in Europe. (They had already organised one of the first trips from Germany to Britain, involving a group of German singers.) 1937 The union shows concern about widening participation. Further education student unions are allowed to join NUS. The union also gets worried about apathy, although this becomes less of a problem with the rise of fascism elsewhere in Europe.

1938- 1944 The NUS nearly closes during the second world war because of concerns about its pacifist leanings and links with communism. Many of its staff join the Ministry of Information. A tiny majority votes to retain the union.

1945 Tfter the war, students are among the few people talking to the Russians. Several leading NUS figures are taken up by MI5.

1950s The union withdraws from the Eastern bloc International Union of Students.

1962 The age of majority drops to 18, which means universities are no longer in loco parentis.

1969 With Jack Straw (now home secretary) as president, the NUS votes to drop its "no politics" clause. This helps to keep it going but loses it some of the respect it earned as an apolitical student pressure group.

1971- 1973 Digby Jacks,then NUS president, recalls battles with education secretary Margaret Thatcher over student union reform, which the government backed away from after mass demonstrations. "Rallying people was easy," he says. "All we had to do was raise the flag and tell people what to do." At the same time, feminism was making an impact, although women had been involved in the union from the beginning. Sue Slipman, the union's first female president, says: "We had to push open the doors but they opened more easily than in many organisations.

1978 Trevor Phillips is elected first black NUS president.

1983 Conservative education secretary Sir Keith Joseph's attempt to introduce tuition fees mobilises students. They resist only to see new Labour introduce a Pounds 1,000 fee more than a decade later.

1986- 1987 The NUS anti-apartheid campaign is a key influence onBarclays' decisionto pull out ofSouth Africa.

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